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Berkeley Sociologists Debate the Present and Future of Occupy

by Hector Fernando Burga

UC Berkeley sociologists Claude Fischer and Michael Burawoy went tête-à-tête in an incisive debate at the peak of the Occupy fervor last November. The lessons of social history and the idealism of sociology clash as they explore the contemporary value and future development of this fluid movement.

The session starts with a summary of the events that led to Occupy Wall Street on Sept. 17, 2011, including links to anti-globalization movements of the late 1990s. Marcel Paret provides the context for the emergence of Occupy Oakland, including California’s current fiscal crisis and social and racial injustices and movements in the Bay Area.

Fischer makes his opening remark on the 18th minute. Pointing to American social history, he predicts that Occupy will not turn out well. Successful street action requires careful coordination with the tide of public opinion, powerful allies in high places, adherence to midterm concrete goals rather than long-term abstract aims, and the transformation of principle into policy. He concludes by offering the example of two movements that turned the tide of political fervor into political success: the civil rights movement and the recent Tea Party movement in the U.S. The key to longevity, he argues, is the transfer of political action from public space to votes that elect new leaders.

Burawoy counterpoints in the 30th minute, linking the spontaneity of Occupy to the emblematic 1968 student movement at UC Berkeley. We must look to history for reference, but what happens when something new appears? And how can sociology offer a lens to understand it? For Burawoy, Occupy is a new form of political mobilization, one that is central to the concerns of sociology: inequality, poverty and capital. The Occupy movement challenges the generalizations of historic social movements to expose the historical particularities of the present, he suggests. To understand this dimension, we must consider who the protestors are, why they are protesting and how they are doing so.

Burowoy builds upon Marxist analysis to explain that Occupy is about the “precariat” rather than the proletariat — those who are increasingly dispossessed from capital rather than the working class. Capital has turned into finance capital, with its fluid investments, rapid flows, local exclusions and global accumulations. The question at the core of this historical moment is: What role does finance capital play in creating the precariat? What can be done to challenge the power of finance capital and its web of dispossession over so much of the population?

Burawoy suggests, the only possible challenge can come from a movement that is as fluid as finance capital — one that turns away from electoral politics, because democracy is itself embedded with finance capital and bourgeois ideals. Given our current historical moment, one in which finance capital impregnates every type of social life, a new form of political action can only take place in the spontaneity of the assembly and the public spaces of the city.

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